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The Oregon Trail

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The publication of the Lewis and Clark journals in 1814 fostered national interest in Oregon country. "Oregon country" consisted of what is known presently as the northwestern states of Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and parts of Montana and Wyoming. Various individuals and groups traveled part of the distance west on what would become the Oregon Trail. Fur trappers such as Jedediah Smith, David Jackson, and William Sublette were the first group to leave wagon tracks on the Oregon Trail. In 1830, they traveled from St Louis, MO to the head of Wind River (Wyoming) to gather furs. The company noted that the Southern Pass would allow easy passage to wagons wishing to cross the Rocky Mountains. In addition, religious revivals in the east caused many churches to send missionaries to Oregon to convert the natives. Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, established a protestant mission near Fort Walla Walla in 1836, inspiring other eastern families to move west (Olson and Naugle 1997:53).

News of abundant fertile agricultural land reached the east and by the end of the 1830s many Americans had the Oregon fever. In 1841, the first group of settlers, the Bidwell-Bartleson party led by Thomas Fitzpatrick, left Missouri for the west. They traveled across the Platte River Valley and divided at Soda Springs, some heading for Oregon and others to California (Olson and Naugle 1997:54). By 1843, migration on the Oregon Trail began in earnest. More than a thousand pioneers traversed the trail in 1843, followed by increasing numbers in the succeeding years.

The trail originally began at Independence, Missouri, crossed the present states of Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and ended in Oregon City, Oregon. However, various other towns along the Missouri River became jumping off points such as St. Joseph, MO, Nebraska City, Plattsmouth, and Omaha, NE, and Council Bluffs, IA (National Park Service). The main route of the trail departed Independence cutting across northeast Kansas and entering southern Nebraska. The trail continued north westerly to the Platte River Valley at which point in followed the southern bank of the river to Fort Laramie. The route continued west to South Pass, a twelve mile corridor through the Rocky Mountains. From South Pass, the trail passed Soda Springs, Fort Hall, and led finally to Oregon.

The Oregon Trail was not one single path, but rather a multitude of variant wagon roads. Many departed the more heavily used trail to avoid getting stuck in deep mud furrows and to find suitable grazing grass for their livestock (Kimball 1988:121). As westward expansion continued, new routes became part of the Oregon Trail system, such as the Nebraska City/Fort Kearney Cut-off, the Oxbow trail, and the Oketo cut-off.

Early emigrants blazed the 2,170 mile stretch of trail seeking passage from Missouri to Oregon. The trip was arduous and took most settlers five months to complete (National Park Service). The pioneers had to face inclement weather conditions, rough, often impassable terrain, hunger, thirst, fatal epidemics, hostile attacks, injuries, deaths of loved ones, and a number of other depredations. Harriett Sherrill Ward, a California-bound emigrant, commented after reaching the west side of the Missouri River, "Nebraska is a miserable, unpleasant place indeed, and can never be inhabited except by Red men" (Dary 2004:257). Sopia Goodridge, a Mormon pioneer, more positively noted the plight of her company on the plains in her diary: June 29. Our company all in good spirits this morning and I feel grateful of my Heavenly Father of his kindness in preserving us from accidents and dangers of all kinds. We traveled eight miles and camped on the open prairie without wood or water, except what we brought with us. There is nothing to see but one boundless sea of grass, waving like the waves of the sea, and now and then a tree. We had a very heavy thunder-shower this morning (Dary 2004:233).

Edwin Bryant, a former editor for the Louisville Courier, wrote about the plight of those traveling west in 1846. Being an educated individual, Bryant was entreated by some pioneers to act as a physician for an injured boy. The boy's legs had been run over by a wagon several days previous, but had not been treated in any way. Bryant related: In this condition the child had remained, without any dressing of his wounded limb, until last night, when he called to his mother, and told her that he could feel worms crawling in his leg! An examination of the wound for the first time was made, and it was discovered that gangrene had taken place, and the limb of the child was swarming with maggots! They then immediately dispatched their messengers for me. [The boy] was so much enfeebled by his sufferings that death was stamped upon his countenance, and I was satisfied that he could not live twenty-four hours, much less survive an operation. But this could not satisfy the mother's affection. She could not thus yield her offspring to the cold embrace of death, and a tomb in the wilderness.

A Canadian Frenchman, who had been a surgeon's assistant, offered to perform the amputation on the young boy if Mr. Bryant declined. The sorrowing mother consented and the crude operation commenced. Predicting the inevitable outcome of such "butchery," Bryant continued: During these demonstrations the boy never uttered a groan or a complaint, but I saw from the change in his countenance, that he was dying. The operator, without noticing this, proceeded to sever the leg above the knee. A few drops of blood only oozed from the stump; the child was dead—his miseries were over. The scene of weeping and distress which succeeded this tragedy cannot be described.

That same day, Bryant attended the boy's funeral, a wedding, and heard about a birth in a nearby wagon train. He reflected: I could not but reflect upon the singular concurrence of the events of the day. A death and funeral, a wedding and a birth, had occurred in this wilderness, within a diameter of two miles, and within two hours' time; and tomorrow, the places where these events had taken place, would be deserted and unmarked, except by the grave of the unfortunate boy deceased!" (Dary 2004:156–58).

The hundreds of unmarked graves along the Oregon Trail attest to the hardships faced by the pioneers. Despite such afflictions, thousands took their chances across the plains in search of their dreams in the west. Samuel Peppard, presumably following an idea from the Lewis and Clark expedition, developed a wagon powered by sails for crossing the plains. In May of 1860, Peppard's crew sailed the windwagon to Fort Kearney and then on to the Kansas goldfields. The speed of the wagon varied according to the wind, but Peppard stated that its best time had been two miles in four minutes. Unfortunately, the grand invention was short lived when the wagon was destroyed by a dust devil just fifty miles northeast of Denver. Peppard and his crew, having survived the crash, traveled to Denver with a passing wagon train. Despite their misfortune, Peppard's crew had traveled over five hundred miles of the Oregon Trail in the windwagon (Dary 2004:276–77).

The Oregon Trail was heavily traveled from 1841 to 1869 by Oregon settlers, missionaries, Mormons, gold-seekers, the Overland Stage line, and the Pony Express. The exact numbers remain a mystery, but researchers estimate that over 300,000 emigrants crossed the western frontier on the Oregon Trail. In response to the mass migration, Corporal F. Longfield wrote a letter from Ft. Kearney on August 6, 1852 stating, "The great emigration of the present season is past and gone. The mighty throng that crowded the roads from east to west is not longer seen, the murmuring of voices, the rattling of chains and wagons, the lowing of thirsty oxen, that daily passed our garrison, are heard no more" (Dary 2004:256). While migration to the west continued into the 20th century, intensive use of the trail ended by 1869 with the introduction of the railroad (National Park Service).

Sites of significance on the Oregon Trail in Nebraska include Rock Creek Station, Fort Kearny State Historic Park, Ash Hollow State Historical Park, Chimney Rock State Historic Site, Courthouse and Jail Rock, and Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Dary, David
2004 The Oregon Trail. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Olson, James C. and Ronald C. Naugle
1997 History of Nebraska. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Kimball, Stanley B.
1988 Historic Sites and Markers Along the Mormon and Other Great Western Trails. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

National Park Service
2005 Oregon National Historic Trail, Electronic document, http://www.nps.gov/oreg/oreg/history.htm, accessed March 8, 2006.